The Way People Think

I am a pretty empathetic person.  I can very quickly and easily figure out how people are feeling about something and respond to them in meaningful way.  So, it really shook me up when I discovered some really obvious and important facts about the way people think.

I have been taking some coaching lessons over the last six months or so.  These are aimed at improving my time management skills and trying to help me take the long view of my career.  They are extremely interesting and enlightening.  One of things that I did many months ago was to take a couple of personality tests to figure out how I think and react to situations.  They were meant to give my coach some idea of how to help me and what I could be working on, and also for me to have some ideas on my strengths and weaknesses. I will probably write another post on my specific results. I also took a personality test with the Honor’s students a couple of months later, and there learned more about how people think too.  This stuff is really amazing.

There are two interesting things that I learned that I want to specifically discuss.  They might be completely obvious to you, but they really struck me as a extremely insightful and really changed the way that I view other people.  I will talk about the first one now, and the second one in another blog post later.

As I have stated before on this blog, I am the type of person who doesn’t see the glass as half full or half empty, but as needing some improvement.  In almost every situation that I am in, I look for how to improve things.  I look for flaws that could be fixed.  I do this with myself, with my kids, with my wife, with my job, with my friends, with everything.  This, it turns out, is somewhat annoying to people.  That is not a shock to me.

It is also not really a shock to me that there are other people who are similar to me out there.  They also see flaws in systems and work to improve those flaws.

What has come as a shock to me is that there are many people out there who have a somewhat opposite point of view in that they feel like people who point out flaws in systems are not being loyal.  They take criticism for a system or for them as being disloyal to that system or to them.

This is probably not news to some of you, and really shouldn’t have been news to me, but it totally shocked me.  There are two things that suddenly lit up in my head: (1) that is why my ex-department-chair despises me; and (2) that is why republicans think that democrats hate America.

I turns out that my ex-boss is a person who views loyalty as being the number one characteristic in people (this is my opinion, of course).  It often seems like he thinks of people as being either with us or against us.  There is no in between.  I honestly had no idea why he was always so angry with me.  Now I know that it is most likely because I was constantly seeking ways to improve things within our larger group.  This constant stream of “seeking improvement” in our group must have driven him crazy and he must have been thinking all of the time that I am disloyal.  I now have a very different view of our relationship.

In the second case, it is a similar situation.  It seems that there are many people in our society are criticized for not loving America (Obama is one of those – which is pretty crazy). It strikes me that this is probably not true, and could very well be because they are critical of the policies and actions of the US government.  It is not that they don’t love America (i.e., not loyal), it is that they are constantly seeking improvement on something that has flaws.  One could phrase it as … seeking a more perfect union … if one wanted to.

It strikes me that in both situations, both sides could seek to understand the other side more.  By me not understanding my ex-boss’s distrust of people who question everything, I struck a really bad cord with him.  I probably could have phrased things in a different way that would allow him to not view me as disloyal.  And, realizing that this is the way that he feels about me, when I get e-mails from him that are quite negative, I can shrug them off and understand where he is coming from.

In the “democrats hate America” debate, I am sure that democrats could reinforce the fact that they love America too, and that the reason that they are critical of society is that they want to see it improved in a way that everyone can be happy.

It is very difficult to navigate this world with so many different personalities in it…. but I guess this is one of the more interesting aspects of life, eh?


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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3 Responses to The Way People Think

  1. Allison says:

    Hm… so that means while I might think confronting people will solve problems, I’m really just terrifying everyone??

  2. Regarding the personality test results: I want to know how you scored on the “is suitable for a career in law enforcement” analysis. I scored very well because, well, I love ‘Merica.

  3. aaronridley says:

    This is a good question. I got almost exactly middle of the road for the “Law Enforcement Orientation” thing. If you read the high side, it says things like “Supports firm and strict law enforcement practices, well-suited for work in the law enforcement field, evaluates problems from a practical and commonsense standpoint.” I evaluate problems really well, so big score there. BUT, on the negative side, I get “Sees law enforcement practices as too strict and severe, likes to take chances, tends to be nonconforming, somewhat pessimistic and dissatisfied.” Wow, does that describe me. So, I think that you have strong positives and strong negatives adding together to give a blah answer.

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